This post is the last of a three-part series in which I discuss Whole Foods Co-CEO John Mackey and Conscious Capitalism, Inc. co-founder Raj Sisodia’s outline of the four tenets of conscious capitalism in their 2013 book, Conscious Capitalism. In each post, I share my thoughts on how each tenet relates to the practice of public relations (see previous posts, The Role of Public Relations in Conscious Capitalism and The Second Tenet of Conscious Capitalism: Stakeholder Integration).
In the third (conscious leadership) and fourth (conscious culture and management) tenets of conscious capitalism, Mackey and Sisodia highlight the importance of not only trust, but also love and care within organizations, noting “love and care are not weak virtues; they are the strongest of all human traits” (p. 225). These elements are key in leadership, culture, and management, they argue, particularly when tough decisions regarding downsizing, outsourcing, and personnel changes need to be made. Given public relations’ focus on relationship building and maintenance, counseling management on how firms can demonstrate love, care, and concern to employees during good and bad times should be the norm for practitioners. Their effectiveness in doing so, however, is directly determined by the extent to which love, care, and a purpose higher than profit-making guide executive decision making. In conscious capitalism, they do, thereby allowing public relations practice to be conscious, too.
I would likely encounter some difficulty in finding journal articles, white papers, or annual reports that addressed the role of love and care in the workplace, but I have experienced the difference their presence makes in a work environment. I recall working for Mobil while planning communications for our pending merger with Exxon back in 1999. Our Exxon colleagues would joke that the Mobil public affairs staff probably scheduled a daily group hug to become such a close-knit, collaborative team. Not exactly, but we were motivated by the relationships we had with stakeholders around the globe and a CEO (Lou Noto at the time) who told us, “When the (you-know-what) hits the fan, I trust you to do the right thing. That’s why I hired you.” For me, that was public relations nirvana. We were very much a capitalist enterprise, and Lou (who never allowed us to call him “Mr. Noto”) expected a lot from his public affairs staff. There were hard, challenging times, but culturally, we as employees were supported, trusted, and sought for counsel. In turn, we extended those qualities to our interactions with key stakeholders and consequently were more effective in seeking mutually beneficial outcomes. When I first studied Jim Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model of public relations as a communication graduate student, my immediate reaction was, “Yeah, I’ve seen that.”
Public relations will be more effective, more “excellent” in Grunig’s terms, and more valued in what Mackey and Sisodia refer to as conscious businesses guided by conscious leadership, culture, and management. Where public relations practitioners can work to enhance the consciousness of an organization, we should. We have an ethical (some would also say moral) obligation to do so. In a 2005 Journal of Mass Media Ethics article on loyalty in public relations, Kevin Stoker (now at Texas Tech University) argues that practitioners should remain loyal to an organization as long as their voice has the possibility of making a positive difference. If not, an exit strategy is appropriate and advisable. Psychologically “exiting” an organization, while remaining employed there, never is.
Concluding Thoughts on Public Relations and Conscious Capitalism
Public relations is essential for conscious capitalism, but not in the form of publicity or media relations with which it is most frequently associated. In fact, media stakeholders are considered secondary audiences in conscious capitalism. How, then, can public relations managers best contribute to the effectiveness of a conscious business? By realizing that conscious businesses are learning organizations primarily focused on employees, suppliers, customers, communities, and investors. Conscious firms value and seek interactive relationships with these key stakeholders, and they rely on two-way communication to not only gather but also apply feedback internally.
When public relations is managed with a learning, rather than a “telling,” mindset, practitioners leverage their boundary-spanning role by listening to stakeholders, conveying that information internally, and then assisting businesses in adapting, when appropriate, to stakeholder demands. Practitioners likewise serve as educators and advocates on behalf of their firms. It is not enough to merely disseminate or gather information. Practitioners must help organizations maintain these relationships by putting stakeholder input to productive use. When viable feedback is visibly applied, primary stakeholders are more likely to continue providing it. Public relations is ideally suited to manage this learning process if practitioners possess the requisite business acumen to assess, filter, direct, and help apply knowledge gained.
Communication expertise must be combined with an applied understanding of how business works. A lack of the latter precludes public relations practitioners from being part of the strategic decision-making process, and why shouldn’t it? Executives around the table have ample business sense. What they need is credible communication insight that is oriented to the goals, higher purpose, and challenges of the business within its broader industry. Practitioners must speak the language of capitalism and its related frameworks, including business objectives, financials, and value creation, if we are to best serve as partners in making it more conscious.
Sandra Duhé, Ph.D., APR, Southern Methodist University